Is Images of Organization on Your Bookshelf (or e-Reader)?

I had occasion to reread Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization a couple of weeks ago and was struck again by how brilliant and useful this book is. Though the latest edition was published in 2006, it seems dated in only a few minor ways. It still offers, in my view, more insightful observations about organizational life than any other book out there.

Morgan’s thesis is that “all organization and management theory and practice is based on images, or metaphors, that lead us to understand organizations in powerful yet partial ways” (Morgan’s emphasis). He supports this thesis by explaining how organizations look when viewed through eight metaphorical lenses:

The organization as machine. An organization based on this way of seeing will be hierarchical and bureaucratic—strong on control but poor at adaptation.

The organization as organism. This type of organization understands itself as a living organism that must pay attention to its various environments as well as foster healthy development internally.

The organization as a brain. Here the emphasis is on enabling quick adaptability through “organizational intelligence,” which is achieved by establishing a minimal set of rules and then allowing employees at all levels to gather, share, and act on information.

The organization as a culture. This vantage point enables us to see organizations as meaning-making systems, with rituals, myths, heroes, values, and shared frames of reference that sustain an interpretive world, much like that of a tribe.

The organization as a political system. All organizations are “intrinsically political” because the people who work there will have diverse and conflicting interests. But conflict, coalition building, and the use of power will be more pronounced in some organizations than in others.

The organization as a psychic prison. “Organization always has unconscious significance,” Morgan asserts: People bring their egos, anxieties, repressions, and many other psychic elements to the workplace, and the organization as a whole can develop tunnel vision or neuroses. These can block positive change and even threaten organizational survival.

The organization as flux and transformation. Organizations that embrace change (and understand that change is inevitable) are more willing than others to redefine the business they’re in, question the traditional boundaries between themselves and other organizations, and let their identities continually evolve.

The organization as an instrument of domination. Organizations can and often do have a dark side, with the will to compete and expand taking precedence over regard for individuals, society, and the well-being of other countries.

As Morgan points out, his list of metaphors is not exhaustive; an organization could be like a sports team, for example, or a family. Also, several different metaphors could be operating forcefully within the same company. But Morgan’s approach enables us to see how complex organizations can be and to have useful ways of getting a grip on them.

So what’s the connection to bcomm?

I would recommend mining this book for insights into how an organization’s structure and ways of operating are likely to shape its communication practices, thereby making some communication decisions better than others. Use the book to get students to talk about the organizations they’re familiar with and to appreciate the importance of interpreting where they work. Then ask them how they’d handle a communication task, such as recommending a change in operations, within different types of organizations, or what communication channels they’d be likely to use depending on what type of company they were in.

We hope to send our students into the work world with communication skills that will help them become successful professionals. Being able to understand what kind of organization they’ve landed in may be the most foundational communication skill of all.

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